I spend my first morning in New Zealand sitting by myself on the steps of our uncle’s home, which has been entrusted to us during our stay in Auckland. As I sip piping hot tea, I feel as if something crucial has vanished from my life — sound. For the first time in my life, I hear pin-drop silence. In a distance, the chirping of birds breaks the spell.
We set off to ‘check out’ our first stop in the north island like all tourists, with just one difference. Our car doesn’t have a navigation system, so while one digs the head into a map, the other drives around while trying to follow directions and taking detours. After an hour of driving on the Harbour Bridge, we land at Mission Bay, a beach promenade. A week to go for Christmas, holiday mode has already set in and bars are brimming with locals, and the beach is buzzing with surfers, kayakers and little white kids swimming in their floats. We settle into a beachside café and dig into Shepherd’s Pie. This is just what we wanted, a day to relax before we begin to tick off our must-see list of sites and activities.
On 64th floor of Sky Tower
Feeling lucky enough to have landed at a tourist spot, we decide to check out the Sky Tower, the tallest man-made structure in New Zealand at 328 metres and a view of 80 kms in every direction. But only after investing in a navigation system device.
The glass-fronted lift takes us to 64th floor, and my Eustachian tube is already working hard to adjust to the pressure. We reach in time for the sunset, and as the sky turns from blue to orange to dark purple, we take a walk around the circumference of the tower, whose transparent glass floor leaves an anxious tickle in the tummy.
Early next day, we dump our bags into the car and feed Waitomo Glowworm Caves as end-point destination into the tom-tom. A steady rally of directions begins our journey. But we do make it a point to stop to devour our packed lunch at one of the lovely benches we pass along the route. A sunny day, elms and poplars dot the roads, and we reach before estimated time, something unheard of in our beloved city, Mumbai. Our guide for the day gives us a short introduction about glowworms, Arachnocampa luminosa that emit light like a million tiny greenish-blue stars and reside in the caves formed due to limestone deposits that grow at the rate of a centimetre per 100 years. Ready for our boat ride in the Waito Grotto, the two of us are busy arguing about the positions of stalactites and stalagmites, when the guide points to the ceiling that display melting stalactites. The boat moves slowly, as the dampness wraps around us like a cloak, and our whispers echoes through the caves. A silent zone, our guide doesn’t hesitate before chiding a few chatterboxes. As the oars hit the waters rhythmically, the only sound is of the black waters that splash. This is one of the spots in the world for black water rafting, which, unlike white water rafting, is conducted in zero-sunlight caves.
The boat stops, with no glowworms in sight, and as we alight, dim yellow bulbs lead us to the ‘cathedral’, where many renowned singers have tested their vocals. We sing, too, along with our echoes — ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’.
We huddle into the boat and darkness encircles us again. Two minutes into the ride, we see a bluish green glow. As we near, like a million stars, the ceiling is covered with an army of glowworms; a sight that takes our breath away. With no photography allowed, it seems everyone in the boat is memorising this picture, to recollect, and mention in his or her travel tales, as one can only attempt to describe nature’s magnificence.
New Zealand, and her surprise, has begun, I tell myself.
As we ride into daylight, even the chatterboxes have lost words. A strange calmness fills the air, as our guide asks us whether water droplets fell on us while we were inside. Yes, say many of us, as she replies, “It is lucky, and grants you each a wish.” Back to civilisation, we satiate our hunger with pizza, and continue our drive to Rotorua, amid mountains and valleys, gorges and lakes, in shades of green and blue.
Luge through Rotorua
Still heady with our meeting with the glowworms, we enter the district that is greatly inspired by the Maori culture. The heart of the Northern island, the city is a hub for tourist attractions. We dedicate the evening to walk around, eat a couple of Boysenberry (a cross between blackberry and blueberry) ice cream sticks and walk by the Rotorua lake. Next day, we head to Waimangu Volcanic Valley Rotorua to see the thermal springs, whose temperatures are around 90 degrees Celcius on an average! With the Maori tribe comprising a third of the population in Rotorua, we also watch a Maori performance, full of dance and music.
In the mood for some adventure, we head to Skyline Rotorua and try our hands riding the luge around a track full of curves and greenery. Cable cars take us to the top of the mountain, and we ride down on the sledge go-cart. We go not oncee, not twice but thrice. We end the activity with a scoop of ice cream, soaking in the New Zealand sun and a sparkling valley view.
With the muscles exercised, we head to Polynesian Spa, one of the top 10 spa resorts in the world, opting for the hot mineral private pool, which oversees the lake. Forty-five minutes in this hot thermal water has us recharged and rejuvenated.
Our lap in the northern island ends here, and we board a flight to Queenstown, which lies in the southern island. The rickety aircraft lands in a valley, and we see rigid mountains all around, and bright strips of blue water, like satin bookmarks across the land. It is love at first sight. This is where the party begins, with everything New Zealand has to offer. Our cab driver from the airport to the hotel is a college girl saving money for her education who is eager to give us a heads up about what’s in store for us. “The party begins here,” she tells us, as she finishes dictating us a list of places to go.
Our room oversees Lake Wakatipu, but we can just sense that this is not a place to cool your heels. We head to the wharf, where quaint cafés, bars and restaurants dot the promenade. But there’s rush only at one place, we observe. The board reads Ferg’s Burger, the best burger in Queenstown we remember the cabbie telling us, and after a half-hour wait, we plop ourselves in the open garden near the lake front, and dig into a football of a burger. This town, like Mumbai, never sleeps and with New Year round the corner, revellers take over the streets post 8 pm. We join in, and stumble into our hotel only at 3 am. Our alarm rings at 7 am and we head to the NZone, in the market area. Here, we sign a bound that reads like suicide. We are packed into a van and taken to a base camp where we wait our turn to commit what we signed up for: jump off a plane. Like when a war is announced and soldiers make a dash for their weapons, volunteers suit us up into red jumpers, packing us for the big leap. My tandem instructor doesn’t do much to pacify my wracking nerves.
He smiles and says, “You’ve paid for it. Try to have fun.” I glare, rethinking my decision but there is no turning back. By the time I decide to nullify the pact, I am 10,000 feet in the sky and when I find my voice to protest, my tandem instructor pushes me as he jumps nonchalantly behind me. In the 30 seconds of freefall, I know what it means to have your heart in your mouth and witness the power of my lungs to scream. The moment I finish reciting all the prayers I know, my tandem pulls the parachute open and a strange calmness washes over me. I look up and see the world, a miniature version. There is no feeling like this one, I say to myself, second time during the trip. When I look down, I see beige dots in the green fields. “They are sheep,” my tandem tells me, as I nod my head, recollecting the fact that this country has more sheep than humans. For the first time since the jump, I smile, and it all feels worth it.